Standing behind Billy inside the convenience store, I knew the minute he started closely eyeing the clear plastic case containing all the colorful scratch-off lottery tickets that nothing truly good would come of it. See my cousin may have had a stellar seven-year high school football career but he peaked during that time and things never went all that well for him after. It all boiled down to the fact that despite his good looks and overabundance of South Carolina charm my cousin just never could understand the overall cause and effect relationship. It really wasn't his fault, most of the time, despite his best intentions the boy just couldn't help that the world was far more complicated than his mind could figure out.
When he finally graduated leaving the football coach in tears, he tried to enlist in the military but the first time the Drill Instructor got in his face his good old boy instincts came into play. His attempt at service to his country amounted to several months spent in the stockade, then coming home sheepishly grinning with a general discharge. Once he settled back down the following fall he enrolled at Watertown community college, which resulted in the automotive shop catching fire and burning to the ground. I found out months after the fact that Billy had lead the class in an experiment in modifying a standard automobile carburetor to use aviation-grade fuel. The resulting explosion and fire destroyed the auto repair shop, cosmetology and real estate agent classrooms. The disaster left the huge majority of the student body at our hometown college unable to pursue their career goals.
Luckily, no one was hurt beyond the automotive instructor taking up drinking again after realizing he should have never left Billy alone in the classroom with the other students and the county council having to shell out a couple hundred-grand to rebuild and replace everything.
With higher education behind him, Billy drifted around to different jobs and many different relationships with women who left my Aunt Sally breathless each time he brought one home. Aunt Sally was smart though; before Billy brought his latest love home, she would call her son and ask how many tattoos the girl had on her body or if she had significant jail time resulting in Aunt Sally making a run to the nearest liquor store before Billy brought the girl over. The size of her purchase was always directly proportional to the number of tattoos on her body and or jail time served. My mama, Aunt Sally's sister, in an attempt to give her as much support as possible had an agreement with the owner of the liquor store to call her if Aunt Sally bought anything greater than one fifth of Jack. With Billy's taste in women being consistent, the poor guy had long since added my mama to his speed dial.
Aunt Sally and my mama being very close and with no other siblings for Billy or me they both had since elementary school drafted me into taking care of my cousin. For both of them I did my best and since Billy was easy to get along with normally, it wasn't hard as long as he didn't do anything out the ordinary. Billy's dad, Uncle Henry, was especially thankful for me looking after his son. Uncle Henry was a true Christian in every sense of the word and over the years had spent many a night on bended knees praying for his son. I love my Uncle Henry but always felt uncomfortable with the fact that he was so sure that his son was destined for greater things because Jesus came to him in a dream one night saying so. I figured the All Mighty has far better judgment than to involve my cousin in much of anything beyond making a phone call to order a pizza so I let the whole subject slide when I was around Uncle Henry.
The night Billy bought the scratch-off lottery ticket that changed everything I had to pick him up from a strip club where he was looking after his latest girlfriend, Trixie. She had developed a rather large local following after being hired at the Watertown strip club. There she was able to show off the gymnastic lessons her parents had paid for until her little brother burned down the double-wide and her daddy had to pay for the surgery to remove the porcupine quills from his favorite, but inbred, deer hunting dog.
A few nights before some out-of-town guy drifted into Watertown and was filling Trixie's head with dreams of stripping in big cities. I learned all this after the fact but the night Billy bought the lottery ticket Trixie was on her third performance with nearly a thousand dollars in her G-string and the crowd giving standing ovations after she displayed her newest maneuvers with the brass pole. Looking out at the crowd going wild, she decided she had finally out grown Watertown, South Carolina and was ready for the big time.
Jumping down from the stage still only wearing her G-string but removing and counting the money as she headed through the standing crowd and toward the exit Trixie was soon greeted by her new love interest and manager but not before Billy caught them.
"Trixie sweetie," Billy said grabbing her sweaty arm, "where are you heading with this guy? I thought we were in love forever Baby. "
"Sweet cakes, you were good for me but I've outgrown you. Thad here has contacts in Columbia and Greenville and promised me that I can be dancing in a couple of days making four times the money I make on the best night here in this crappy little town." Trixie said with a little actual human sympathy but with Thad in his leisure suit standing next her smiling like a fox that had just gain access to the hen house.
It's hard to get my cousin mad but with his fifth or sixth, I've lost count, love of his life about to walk away he reacted by punching Thad in the mouth sending him flying out the door. Trixie screamed and ran after the man who promised to make her a real star and stripping in places like Atlanta, Georgia and Charlotte, North Carolina before the end of the year.
Thad was barely conscious lying on the gravel parking lot, blood dripping down the coat of his pea green leisure suit. Trixie quickly rushed up and cradled his head into her double D sized breasts. Billy came running up ready to finish the man off but the sight of the him struggling to breathe as the naked Trixie pushed his head deeper into her ample cleavage left my giant cousin laughing on the ground.
Luckily, everyone around the strip club was in a good mood that night, except Thad who was angry over his ruined leisure suit, which he thought would be coming back into style any day allowing him to ride the crest of the next fashion wave. The strip club owner, a big fan of my cousin's high school football career, decided not to press charges as long as Billy didn't come back for a few months. The deputy sheriffs, many who had played on the same football team with Billy agreed that the entire incident was a non-event as long as he did not drive home since he had drank more than a few beers that night.
Billy's phone call to come pick him up did wake me at an ungodly hour but fearful of the joint wrath of my mama and aunt I hustled over to the strip club to pick him up. Figuring that my kids would love to see "Uncle Billy", I told my drowsy wife that I would just bring Billy back here and let him sleep in the guest room.
On the way back to my house we stopped at the Jiffy Mart so Billy could pick up a Coke and a honey bun, worried over Trixie he had not ate anything that night and was now very hungry. While standing behind him in the store with my own snacks I saw Billy eyeing the colorful and glamorous lottery tickets in the plastic case. I do occasionally play the big multi-million lotto drawing just to have some chance to daydream about the good life free of bills and worries but stay away from the scratch-off games because they seem far too addictive.
"What the Hell Jake," my cousin turned to me and said as if he was reading my mind. "My luck can't get any worse and I don't seem to be going any place soon."
I started to speak up but held back for some reason as Billy bought the twenty-dollar scratch-off card promising to pay off five million after taxes. I figured it was a waste of money but Billy is a grown man so I left it alone, plus even a few minutes where he had some hope that things might change for him was worth the price. We talked on the drive home so he didn't get a chance to scratch it off that night but early the next morning I heard both a roar from the other end of the house where Billy had slept along with the cheers of my two kids.
"Jake," Billy said rushing into my bedroom and scaring my wife under the covers, "check this out, daddy was right I am destined for great things."
Sure enough, I inspected the scratch off card to see that my hard luck cousin was now far richer than anyone I knew. My wife who still refused to come out from underneath the covers pulled the card from my hand and just shook her head in disbelief looking at it. As much as I suggested to Billy that we needed to keep the news quiet until the money was in his account once he told Aunt Sally and Uncle Henry the word spread all through the county faster than light.
I was able to protect my cousin up until the time the money was deposited but after that, I was overwhelmed by a whole host of people introduced to him by Aunt Sally and Uncle Henry. Namely, several members of Uncle Henry's church who were also rather high up in the country club set. With Billy's good looks, charm and now ample money they quickly took him under their guiding wings and began molding him into another person. A decent hair cut, new clothes, and more than a few lessons in social customs and graces my cousin became a new man.
Much to my surprise, he easily took to his new image and standing running with the big dogs, which only moved him into higher circles. Before long a stunning lady from Charleston, whose family could trace their roots back to colonial times became his new love and with that, "Billy" became "Robert" with much of his past life officially erased. Somewhere along the way, my cousin earned a college degree from a university in Idaho that I had never heard of but was said to run advertisements in the classified section of various men’s magazines. A short time after that Billy became an officer in the National Guard without benefit of training with a whole bunch of awards already on his records. His drill weekends have him hanging out at the state headquarters making coffee, talking about football, and driving the staff around. Most surprisingly was that Billy became a subject of political gossip in newspapers across the state about a possible career in politics.
The beautiful spring morning Billy married the fine lady from Charleston I drank about as much as Aunt Sally when I heard the governor publicly endorse my cousin for the state senate in the upcoming election. After the ceremony, the men folk privately gathered in a small room to smoke and drink I about choked on my glass of fine bourbon when the governor told my cousin he should prepare for a run for his office in a few years.
Uncle Henry of course took all of this to mean his praying had paid off, but despite Billy's now polished exterior I kept drifting back to the man I have known since we were kids. Some might say I'm jealous but actually I'm more scared than anything else. To say Billy is jinxed would describe my feelings fairly well. I keep thinking about the picture of Billy in the Watertown Times newspaper with his eyebrows burned off and the look of utter shock on his face from the explosion at the community college automotive shop. For that reason, and much to the chagrin of Billy who is now running for governor I am taking my family out of South Carolina. I figure Florida is a safe enough distance to watch how things unfold.